Thanks to all who attended and contributed to the rich and lively discussion at the first of a series of three events sponsored by SCAN, Gray’s School of Art and Aberdeen City council which opened with contributions from social anthropologist Petra Tjiske Kalhoven and artists David Blyth and Alana Jelinek.
Conversation between David Blyth, Petra Tjitske Kalshoven and Alana Jelinek
2pm on 13 December 2014
Aberdeen Art Gallery
The series opened with Kalshoven who performed the first part of her talk with clarity and precision along to a backdrop of sounds from the male barbershop carol singers echoing into the studio space from Aberdeen Art Gallery’s atrium. The talk centred on taxidermy providing a comparative description of two different practices that combined to produce a fuller understanding of the particularities of taxidermy, its structures, techniques and hierarchies, and to open a window into Bylth’s artistic encounter with the form. Kalshoven framed her perspective as being one that could shed light on other forms of knowledge making, allowing us to think differently about how we come to know in art, collecting and in the ethnographic practices at the heart of social anthropology. She spoke on historian Carlo Ginsberg whose writing could be seen to mirror concerns in Jelinek’s narrative on how people fit ideas about the world into categories and frameworks. More particularly, Kalshoven spoke on Ginzberg’s concept of elastic rigour, concerned with registering small traces and gestures, which reveal connections between things and patterns. Elastic rigour was described as playful, intuitive knowledge, difficult to reconcile with academic rules and structure. In relation to anthropology and to the series’ concern with outsider knowledge, Kalshoven also quoted James Clifford recognition of it as a useful tool for understanding ‘ how one feels ones way into an unfamiliar ethnographic situation.’ In the world of taxidermy Kalshoven is outsider learning from the practitioners as they mimic the natural worlds that inspire them. She notes that because of the various competitive structures within the discipline there is a search for the ideal specimen, without imperfections, each work a rehearsal for the perfect imitation of life that leads to hyper real results. In contrast to this Blyth seems more drawn to the discarded and imperfect. He goes under the skin, his birds, who join us in the room, are striped back to the manikin’s Kalshoven describes as differently fashioned to model perfect surfaces. Despite this reversal, this doing away of the illusion of life, Kalshoven registers an intriguing liveliness and movement in Blyth’s work that celebrates the skill of taxidermy by turning it inside out and bringing it to life in a very different setting.
From hyperrealism Blyth’s talk gestured towards a kind of magic realism. He introduced it as a work in progress, happening ‘as we speak’ and ongoing. If it is possible to talk about a beginning to this work then it is with a story of two Woodcocks that arrive from different places and are delivered in a moment of strange synchronicity to Blyth just after bonfire night a month before. The arrival of the birds, perhaps the least visible migrants to the shores of Aberdeen, inspired Blyth to undertake a period of intense research into their habits and the different traditions of knowledge that surround them from ecological, hunting and culinary towards the mythological and artistic. Blyth’s storytelling around the birds seemed to imitate their circular movements including their 360 degree vision and anticlockwise or ‘widdershins’ flight paths as well as their habit of following their mate in circles around trees. Blyth likens the taxidermist to a funeral director or temporary agent who arrives at a particular point, a point of passing, to take care, like a spirit guide for the animals in a journey to somewhere else. He uses the French word passager, evocative of travel and temporary locations, to describe this fleeting or flighting encounter. As spirit guide he is listening for messages from the birds and as Kalshoven reflects finds them intuitively in the details of their existence and the stories from different bodies of knowledge that collide, producing clues for the artist to proceed. In hunting terminology he describes an inner fraternity of hunters named after the Woodcocks, an exclusive club for those able to shoot two birds with one barrel. From the butcher he relates the slightly archaic sounding tradition of eating almost all of the animal, including its cranial juices, and also registers another reversal in that the white meat can be found on the leg and the dark meat on the body. This combined with the widdershins flight inspires the artist to try to enact his own reversals – reflecting that a video of his own taxidermy processes played backwards could be a kind of resurrection. Finally, Blyth traces a linguistic path to ancient Egypt and the legend of Osiris’s resurrection through his dark sister’s fashioning of a missing body part for the god; a wooden cock. So we are returned to the wooden structures built by the taxidermist in a quest for life likeness. We also follow a path backwards to Blyth’s own earlier exhibitions as he remembers a mummified Scolopax displayed in a circle at Peacock’s Gallery fifteen years before. We see an x-ray portrait of a bird in passing and beneath the skin a portrait of an artist’s practice that seems to be constantly on the move, spiraling between disciplines to produce new insights in the connections between things.
A consideration of interdisciplinary working also forms the opening part of visiting artist Alana Jelinek’s talk. By thinking through her years in collaboration with anthropologists she related similarities between the disciplines including the level of self -reflexive criticality that anthropology brings to considerations of where knowledge comes from. From a perspective outside, amongst anthropologists Jelinek registers art as a specific discipline, as one way of seeing the world. Like Blyth’s Kaleidoscope of perspectives on one subject Jelinek finds the awareness of different genealogies of knowledge refreshing and generative. Also, like Blyth, Jelinek begins from what could be referred to as the sentient object getting to know it in a playful way by looking at its form in relation to her own. Jelinek’s object is the cannibal fork, which she first encountered on a residency in the Cambridge Museum of Archeology and Anthropology and choose to centre a narrative project, The Fork’s Tale: As Narrated by Itself, around because it seemed to be a rich source of stories. Jelinek’s story, a book of twelve chapters published over the same amount of months, is about the relationship between collections, collectors and the collected. It is told from the perspective of the fork as Jelinek reasoned that through her position of artist, making things, her empathy resided most with the collected. The fork is not only in a collection but also engaged in the process of drawing up its own taxonomy of collector types that have encountered the fork over its history. Through this taxonomy a struggle emerges as the fork, tries to remain true to a taxonomy that increasingly won’t hold and begins to understand something about itself. The fork’s taxonomy is based around what stories you hold onto and, like the taxidermist, what is discarded. Eventually, the stories that are kept by the various collectors say less about the fork and more about collectors. The narrative drive is towards the ideal collector, one who does not discard or project his/her own stories onto the fork. In approaching the act of ‘selective collecting’, something the tale asserts we all do through storytelling, Jelinek expressed an interest in thinking about how much truth can be ascertained by simply dividing up the world. Where Blyth encounters multiple, often contradictory, truths the fork’s search for the ideal collector stalls, delayed by the discussions between the collected objects and eventually fades from view leaving a more uncertain place to negotiate.
The discussions following on took up this uncertainty dealing with questions of care and intention in curating. More than classifying and setting things out it seemed like the three perspectives could shed light on the curator as someone who might attempt to care for the relationships between objects/subjects. Knowing that in caring, like the Egyptian tradition of wrapping up the dead, you inevitably change what you approach. And in the same way it changes you. Finally begging the question what do we have to give up to be in common?